Saturday, July 31, 2010

Annapolis Trip

I'm in Annapolis right now, working on a 13' x 14' mural for an old friend of mine. Tim asked me if I'd do a Star Wars-themed mural in his son's bedroom. It sounded like a fun project - very different from what I normally paint and technically challenging, so I agreed. I put together a rough proposal, he bought off on it, and I got to work.

After doing all the preparations in my studio, I drove up to Baltimore on Monday. It was a beautiful drive: clear skies and light traffic, so I rolled along pretty quickly. I got to visit with my cousin Monday night and then meet up with some old friends from Asheville on Tuesday. We were all art students at UNCA. They went on to graduate school at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore, then stayed on as teachers. It was really good to see them again. That afternoon, I drove down to Annapolis and on Wednesday morning went right to work. As you can see in the picture, I'm about halfway through it. I have the drawings done and several key elements painted: Chewbacca, Yoda, Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and the Star Wars logo. Today I need to do R2D2, C3PO, the spaceships, and the light-saber fight. Tomorrow I'll finish up the Millennium Falcon and start work on the background.

So now I've got to get to work. There's lots to do and not much time to do it.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Hot Town, Summer in the (Little) City

The incredible Heat Wave of 2010 continues in North Carolina, not to mention the entire eastern half of the country. We've been above 90 almost every day for over a month, with very little rain. Surprisingly, we have had no "hottest day" records set this year. Nearly every day has been 5-10 degrees above normal and the April-June period is the hottest on record, but we haven't set a single "hottest day" milestone. Not yet, at any rate.

This weekend is the Bele Chere festival in Asheville. This is billed as the largest street fair in the southeast, with 300,000 people attending over the 3-day run. Janis and I got with our neighbors, Daryl and Jennifer, last night and went out for dinner at Curras, a very un-typical Mexican restaurant. No burritos here, it's more like what you might find in Mexico City. I had their swordfish special that was probably the best I've ever had. Janis had their carne asada and it was to die for.

Afterwards, we went down to Bele Chere. We wandered the streets a bit, looking at the street vendors and mostly people-watching. When you get that many people crammed into a small area in hot weather, you're going to see some really strange things. Sometimes you just gotta wonder, where do these people come from? I saw one guy in typical festival garb: ratty shorts and T-shirt, dirty ball cap, a beer in one hand and a corn dog in the other ... and the front of his T-shirt said "GOT CULTURE?" Ummm, depends on how you define "culture" ...

The reason we went last night, as opposed to our usual plan of waiting until Sunday (no beer sales on Sunday, so it's a quieter crowd) is that the Fabulous Thunderbirds were playing. We weren't about to miss them. Actually, though, I thought they were more like the Pretty Good Thunderbirds. They were good, but I've heard bands equally as good from around here. What really surprised me, though, was that the crowd was much older than I expected. I mean, most of them were older than me, and I'm in my upper 50's. Never thought of the Thunderbirds as "geezer rock", but that's what I was seeing. There was one group of people right in front of us that was whooping it up, dancing in the street, slinging beer all over the place, and they were all in their mid to late 60's, fer chrissakes. And they looked like, if they were wearing suits, they'd be defending you in court. But when I got to thinking about it, the Thunderbirds have been cranking out music since about 1980, and that was thirty freakin' years ago, so I suppose that I shouldn't be surprised to see an older crowd.

I guess that's something about aging. On one hand, 1980 doesn't seem that long ago to me. I still remember what I was doing and listening to pretty clearly. I still like Queen's "Another One Bites The Dust", Blondie's "Call Me", and Pink Floyd's "The Wall". On the other hand, thirty years is a pretty good period of time. Somehow, my brain has a problem connecting the two.

Geezer rock, here I come!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Shirley Sherrod

Way to go, Tea Partiers and Fox News. Boy, you pulled a fast one on the nation, didn't you? You found a video of a speech by Shirley Sherrod, an official in the Agriculture Department, in which she talked about her personal prejudices against whites. Then you raised holy hell about it, both on Fox and heavily in the right-wing blogs. Which caused the Administration and the NAACP to fire Ms. Sherrod, end her career with the government, and denounce her as racist.

Except, of course, it wasn't true. Once people viewed the entire video, not just the clips that the bloggers and Fox News broadcast, it turned out that she was a redemption story. Her speech was about her personal journey to overcoming her own racist prejudices, not a denunciation of whites. And, as it turns out, she was very successful in helping whites as well as blacks. Her story should be a example to all of what is possible.

Instead, you guys have successfully ruined the career of an inspirational and successful black administration official and thrown the Administration into a tizzy. Yes, you've certainly shown everybody that the Obama gang is racist and not to be trusted, haven't you? Who cares that you ruined somebody's reputation?

Well, the Administration does, if belatedly, as well as the NAACP. Both have offered their apologies to Sherrod. As they damn well should. When will the Tea Party and Fox News offer their apologies? So far, they haven't. Which says a helluva lot about both, doesn't it? Not just about the accuracy of their statements, but about their moral character.

Follow-up (Saturday, 24 July): Bill O'Reilly has apologized for his part in the Sherrod case. Good for him. Andrew Breitbart, the clown who first posted the video, is now saying that he's being unfairly vilified by liberal media. He has not apologized.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Life Lessons in a Talent Show

It's been a busy week in Lake Woebegone, my home town ... oh, sorry, that's somebody else's line. It's been busy here, too. I've been working on a commission for a mural. A friend asked me to paint a Star Wars-based mural in his son's bedroom. This is an interesting and fun project - the subject matter is much lighter than the usual stuff I paint and a mural is technically complex. My only gripe is that the boy is at that particular age where all girls have cooties, so there are no females in this mural. Rats. I was looking forward to doing Princess Leia in that sexy slave-harem outfit.

Janis and I have been watching "America's Got Talent" for a few weeks now. I didn't want to at first, figuring it was just lightweight, over-hyped mental floss, but I've actually found that it’s fun and can be a very interesting metaphor for the art world in particular, if not almost any field of professional endeavor. The start of the season was very democratic: anybody could enter, and just about anybody did. But that's where the democracy ends. An article revealed that, because there are thousands of applicants in each city, AGT staffers pre-screen and select only a small percentage for the judges. Which is pretty much like applying for a real job, isn't it? Lots apply, then some faceless/nameless bureaucrats whittle them down to a manageable number for the real decision-makers. Except that, in real life, the faceless ones generally screen out all but the top candidates; for this show, they leave in a lot of walking train wrecks for entertainment purposes.

So thousands of hopefuls think they have talent, or that they are stars waiting to be discovered, or both. Of these, only a few hundred make it to the judges. We saw quite a variety: some with amazing talent but little or no confidence in themselves, some with amazing egos but little or no talent to back it up, some with a bit of talent but all the drive in the world, and all the variations in between. Then the reality check begins. Assuming they made it through the initial screening, they face a gradual elimination process. The performers have to step up their game at each level and do the best they can. How they respond is so enlightening. Some have done variations on their original performance: a different song, some different tricks, but essentially the same type of thing. One stunt guy tried to do more of everything and wound up running around looking like a maniac. Another guy completely changed the substance of his act to where it had no relation to what he'd been selected for. Some got fancier outfits. My insight was that the ones who’ve made it this far do it by getting better. Not fancier, more complicated, or doing something that they think might have more appeal. They just do what they do, only better, with more heart, skill, and practice.

I’ve found that is also true in the art world. When the pressure is on, I’ve certainly felt that maybe I had to get fancier, or adopt the trend of the moment, or try to create something that appeals to the judges or public or whatever. And when I’ve done that, invariably I’ve failed miserably. I was trying to apply somebody else’s rules to my own way of doing business. When I followed my own instincts, I always did much better work. (Maybe it didn’t sell any better, but at least the work was better!)

Further, the same general rules applied to my Navy career. Every couple of years, somebody comes out with a trendy new management technique, and the military is just as susceptible to that kind of crap as the corporate world. Sometimes I could use one of the new techniques, but often they just got in the way. I knew of some people who were chameleons - they could adopt the latest fad with lots of enthusiasm and plenty of showboating but they really weren’t any better for it. They just got the spotlight on them for a while.

On “America’s Got Talent”, it is already clear that a few people will get to the finals for two reasons. Number one: they have the heart and drive for it, and are willing to put everything on the line. Everything. Number two: they have a reasonable amount of talent. Of these, heart and drive is most important. These rules apply to much more than just AGT. They apply to the art world that I’m in, they applied to the military world that I was in, and they probably apply to whatever profession you’re in.

Who’d have expected life lessons in a “piece of fluff” television show?

I’ve thought about these issues as they apply to my own life. Lots of artists have dreams of making it big in the art world. I don’t. I have noticed a change in my attitude since I came back from Iraq. My art is not the most important thing in my life. After being away from my wife for months at a stretch, losing two friends to a bomb in Iraq, having a couple more pass away in the States from illnesses, and almost losing one of my beloved dogs to Addison’s disease, my priorities are now different. Family and friends are much more important than my so-called art career. If I’m working at the computer or at the easel and one of my dogs comes up and wants to play, I’ll play. If my wife or a friend wants to talk, I’ll talk. The painting will still be there tomorrow; my friend or my dog may not.

This attitude will never win “America’s Got Talent”. Fine with me. I can, and will, make some good paintings anyway. But it’s the relationships that are most important in my life.

How about yours?

Friday, July 09, 2010

New Tenants

We have some new tenants at our house. A couple of small birds - wrens? - built a nest in a corner of our garage, and a few days ago, two little eggs appeared. Momma and children are apparently doing fine, thank you very much.

Actually, this is the second nest they've built. A couple of weeks ago, when I cleaned out our garage, I found and dumped a nest, thinking it was an old one. The next day, two very pissed-off little birds were seen flapping around our garage. Ooops. They started building another nest next to the TV that Janis watches when she's on the treadmill, but that didn't last long since J cranks up the volume so she can hear it over the treadmill. They settled, instead, in another corner.

We think it's funny that wild birds would want to build inside the garage. For one thing, we close the garage door at night and when we're not home, so momma and poppa bird are locked away from the kids for many hours at a time. First thing in the morning, though, minutes after the garage door is opened, they're back.

We check in on them every day and have provided them with a water bowl, but try to leave them alone. It'll be interesting to see what happens.

These aren't our only tenants, by the way. We have another nest under the top of our propane tank!

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

New Small Paintings

I've been working in the studio for the past couple of days. Here are the two small (12"x16") paintings that resulted.

The Rug Merchant

Three Iraqi Girls

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Projects in Iraq

I'm normally a fan of the New York Times, particularly when it comes to reporting in Iraq. They are one of only a couple of major international news organizations that maintain a full-time presence in the country. (The only other one I know of is Al Jazeera). Usually, Times reporting is very accurate and insightful.

Not this time. Yesterday, they ran an article entitled "U.S. Fails to Complete, or Cuts Back, Iraqi Projects". The gist of it is that, through incompetence and inefficiency, American reconstruction managers are failing to do their jobs, wasting taxpayer money and leaving Iraqis in the lurch. As a former reconstruction project manager in Iraq, I am familiar with the projects that they cite in the article. I can state unequivocally that this article is highly slanted and is based on extremely selective use of facts. It is certainly not up to the Times' normally high standards.

The article focuses on the sewage treatment plant being built in Falluja. This is a city that saw two major battles and some of the worst fighting of the war. It is still dangerous, although much improved. According to the Times' article, in 2004 American authorities decided, on their own and with no input from the Iraqis, to build a massive sewage treatment plant. After spending six years and over $100M, we're now walking away from an unfinished plant, leaving Falluja residents in the lurch. Additionally, Americans are leaving many of the rest of our projects unfinished, or finished to such low standards that they are unusable. Essentially, we are wasting American taxpayer money and leaving Iraqis with nothing useful.

The facts that the Times cites are fairly true, as far as they go. But they ignore many important facts, and their conclusions are certainly far from the real situation. Now for the rest of the story.

In 2004, as the article states, raw sewage ran in the streets of Falluja, a result of overflowing septic systems. The reason the septic systems were overflowing is that the trucks that normally would have pumped out all the septic tanks could not function in a city that was being torn apart by warfare. The operators could hardly have said "Umm, excuse me, but could you Americans stop shooting for an hour so I can pump out the septic tanks on this street? And you guys over there, would you remove those bombs, please? I'll only be there a little while and then you can go back to killing each other. Thank you very much."

In 2004, we were just starting to use money as a weapon. The goal was to start the repair and rebuilding process in Iraq and to provide essential services (clean water, electricity, sewage, roads, education, and so on). We would hire Iraqis to do the work: if they were employed and earning a living, they would be less inclined to pick up an AK-47. So even though the real cause of the sewage in the streets of Falluja was the inability of the septic trucks to operate, American and Iraqi authorities decided to put a lot of Falluja residents to work on a city-wide sewer system.

The Americans proposed a system that would collect sewage from the city and route it to a lagoon processing system. This is a very simple system that is cheap to build, requires very little maintenance, and can be operated by people with little training. It's a common system throughout the world and the United States. Iraqi officials, however, would have none of that. They believed that lagoon systems were for "third-world" countries (their words, not mine). They wanted a state-of-the-art, high-tech system. After a long period of going round and round, American military and civilian leaders capitulated and agreed to build the high-tech version, even though it would cost many times more than a lagoon system, would require a small army of highly-educated and highly-trained operators as well as additional fuel, chemicals, and maintenance, and wouldn't accomplish anything that the lagoon system couldn't. Virtually all of us who were involved in any way with the Falluja sewer project during my time in-country (Aug 2008 - Apr 2010) realized that this was a major mistake, but had to live with it.

So for the past six years, we've been trying to build this monstrosity. A project like this is difficult to do in the best of times; in a place like Iraq, it's amazing we've gotten as far as we have. Violence has been only part of the problem. There have been constant issues with contractors: incompetence, inefficiency, and fraud, to name some. We've had to terminate many contractors for poor performance, then re-award the contracts, only to terminate the next one as well. City officials have played their own roles in obstructing progress by delaying or refusing permits. Most importantly, Iraq is a very tribal country, and if you do not have the right tribal connections, you cannot work in a particular area. So even the most highly-qualified construction company in the world could not build this system in Falluja if it didn't have Falluja people on the payroll.

(The best analogy I can think of is that Iraq is a country of Tony Sopranos. National government officials, provincial government officials, city government officials, heads of corporations, local bigwigs - almost all are a "Tony Soprano" to varying extents. If you want to build a project in any city, town or province, you pay off the right people, you hire their buddies (regardless of whether they work or not; usually they don't), you pay through the nose for permits and approvals, you grease palms, you buy supplies and materials from certain "approved" companies, and so on. While I worked at the Embassy, the Anti-Corruption Coordinator estimated that 70 cents on every American dollar was skimmed off in such fashion, and I believe it.)

After all these years, though, the project in Falluja is winding down. The Times article didn't mention it, but the high-tech sewage treatment plant is being successfully completed. It's a showcase. The problem is the collection system: the pipes that run through the city, all the way to each house and business. This is what has caused roads to be ripped up for years and caused major inconveniences for Falluja residents. The major problems with the collection area construction projects were with the contractors. I am not saying that the Corps of Engineers didn't make mistakes, but it certainly wasn't the one-sided "Americans are incompetent" pitch that the Times is making. At the end of April, when I left Iraq, the plan for Falluja was to connect just enough houses to the system to allow operation of the plant. This was about all that could be done with American funding within the remaining time available. Don't forget: we have a deadline coming up, and our military forces (including the Corps of Engineers) have to be out of the country. However, most of the major construction for the sewage collection system will have been completed. It will be up to the Iraqis to make the final connections. And it will be up to the Iraqis to maintain and operate their brand-new, state-of-the-art sewage treatment plant. As the Times article noted, they have not yet stepped up to the plate.

I was personally offended by one paragraph. It stated that four Iraqis have died during construction of the sewage plant. This is true. One of them was a young boy whose father sent him down in a hole to pull the plug that prevented him from dumping his septic waste into the collection system. I believe that this boy was the one mentioned in the article who was overcome by fumes. What the article did not state was that three Americans have died as well. Two of them, Terry Barnich and Dr. Maged Hussein, were co-workers and friends of mine at the Embassy; the third was CDR Duane Wolfe, who was in charge of the sewage system construction. The three were killed by a roadside bomb on May 25, 2009, while on a visit to the Falluja sewage project. These men - smart, dedicated beyond belief, and committed to success - were killed by the very people they were trying to help.

I had to laugh at some parts of the Times article, particularly at the idea that Iraqis are complaining about American engineering and safety standards. I've seen the results of Iraqi standards. I also had to laugh at the idea that the Iraqis are complaining about poor quality of construction and that the Americans are ignoring them. Somebody's blowing smoke ... or not doing all their research.

As for the claims that we're walking away from partly completed police stations, schools, etc with no explanation, that is just not the case. We probably are walking away from some, but we're working closely (through the Embassy and the Provincial Reconstruction Teams) with the affected Iraqis. The ones we're leaving would be the problem projects, the ones in which the contractors are dragging their feet, or who are screwing up construction, or whatever, and the projects are in such a state that they simply cannot be completed with the time and money remaining. Unlike the past, in which we could terminate one contractor and try again with a different one, we no longer have that option. We're leaving the country. We will not be able to finish them. We're eliminating the projects that can't be completed and putting the remaining (limited) resources into those that can. Sounds like responsible management to me, not incompetence.

That does not mean that these projects can't be completed at all. Iraq is now in a very different condition than it was even two years ago. On virtually all the construction projects that were ongoing when I left, Iraqis could have executed them if they wanted to. That's a key shift from the past, when they did not have the organization, abilities, or resources to handle these projects on their own. Now they do. So if we can't complete a school or courthouse or sewer connections in the year remaining, Iraqis can. It's their country, so they should step up to the plate.

The Times article is accurate in that there are, indeed, problems with some (not all, not even the majority) of our remaining projects in Iraq. It is not, however, just an issue of American competence or judgement. It's much more complicated than that. The Times should present a more complete and nuanced view in future reports if it is to maintain its position as a respected news source. Hatchet jobs like this are unprofessional.